Is everybody happy?
The BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today has had a couple of interesting pieces on happiness in the last couple of days, including a report from Denmark, which regularly tops polls as the happiest place in Europe. They included a clip of David Cameron’s call for more consideration of general well-being than gross domestic product. Much of the modern interest in this flows from Richard Layard’s book Happiness in the UK and the positive psychology movement in the USA spearheaded by Martin Seligman. Of course happiness has its critics too. Should there be a trade union perspective?
I’ve always been in two minds about making happiness an explicit public policy objective. This may have something to do with being a bit of a melancholic myself, and finding intensely happy people more than a bit irritating. I suspect one of the less appealing aspects of trade unionism is that we all seem to enjoy a good whinge – though it doesn’t seem to make us happy.
But there are more rational arguments too. There is something a bit scary about the state wanting us all to be happier, and as Paul Ormerod and Helen Jones argue asking people if they are happy produces data that bears little relationship to anything else. Indeed I think snapshots of happiness are a bit suspect. How do people measure their own happiness? Don’t most of us tend towards an even keel over time? I don’t really know whether I’m happier now than I was twenty years ago – come to think of it I’m not sure how I compare with last week, but that may just be me. There is clearly a rise in diagnosed depression, but that I think is rather different than general well-being.
This is not to say that psychological insights can’t help individuals brighten up. Clearly the clinically depressed can be helped, and it follows that the not clinically depressed, but a bit miserable, can also be made more cheerful. But does it make sense to try and assess the collective happiness and then use macro measures to try to improve it? I’m not so sure.
But while measures and happiness targets do not strike me as a recipe for good government, there is still an important issue here. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is still a worthy objective for public policy, individual action and trade union campaigning. We may get hung up on other objectives, but they are mostly a means to an end of making people happy.
It may be that a better way of looking at this is that it is entirely legitimate to look at ways of reducing unhappiness. Being ill, insecure and unemployed are all likely to make people unhappy. That is why it is right for public policy to target these. But can we go further and promote happiness?
One issue that often crops up in the academic debate is whether more equality makes for more happiness. Richard Layard argues this, but Paul Ormerod finds little correlation between measured inequality and happiness, though one explanation for Denmarks’ high happiness quotient is that is a much more equal society with a strong welfare state and a powerful sense of civic solidarity. It certainly shows that paying high levels of tax does not make you unhappy.
Perhaps the problem is not just that it is hard to measure happiness, but that it is a product of many different factors. Public policy and your external environment can remove many likely causes of unhappiness, and stop some obvious causes of misery, but not actually make you happy. Not being miserable is not quite the same as being happy – a much more intangible emotion that depends as much on whether subjective expectations are being met as objective economic and environmental factors.
So rather than asking whether trade unions can make their members happy, it might be better to think about the causes of unhappiness in the workplace and what can be done to remove them.
Employers are undoubtedly keen on research that shows that higher pay doesn’t necessarily make people happy – at least not for long. Although trade unions are right to be wary of this argument, research does tend to show that it is the perception of unfair pay that makes people unhappy. If other people doing the same job as you are paid more because of their race and gender, you will be unhappy – just as you will if it’s because they work in a different workplace down the road. You will be unhappy if you think the pay structure is unfair.
But if there is a lesson in this debate it is that factors other than pay contribute hugely to well-being. What makes workers really unhappy and stressed are jobs that fail to use their capabilities and over which they have no control or autonomy. It’s the opposite of what psychologists call flow – defined on Wikipedia thus:
Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
I’m not sure that striking for more flow is very likely in the near future, but it does suggest that unions are right to give such high priority to skills and training likely to lead to more fulfilling jobs, and to think how best to argue against the command and control management that reduces autonomy (and productivity) that is so common – particularly in non-union workplaces dominated by routine tasks. And in the wider policy sphere it is why we argue for less inequality and more social justice.
It might not make us happy, but at least we will have less to moan about.